Italy: the new far-Right

The far-Right in Italy is starting to mount a serious challenge. It is smarter than it used to be, modelled on Marine Le Pen’s Front National, offering a softer, more approachable platform. They're right on one thing. They want out of the euro

Matteo Salvini wants out of the euro
Tim Hedges
On 26 December 2014 05:49

Commentators say that Italy is currently in its Third Republic. The First (and what people then thought to be the only) Republic lasted from 1948 until 1993. It was characterised by the struggle between the Christian Democrats and the Communists.

The Christian Democrats, who held office almost continually during this period, had their good points and their bad. They were Catholic, anti-communist, corporatist and corrupt. The Mani Pulite (clean hands) enquiry put an end to them and the humour went that VIP meant Visto in Prigione (seen in prison).

The Second Republic ushered in, and was dominated by, Silvio Berlusconi, whose colourful contribution to Italy’s politics and international standing will be assessed for many years to come. Some will say that he was as corporatist and as corrupt as the figures he professed to hate.

The Third Republic was created quietly by President Giorgio Napolitano in 2011 when, with some help from Europe, he ousted Berlusconi, replacing him with the technocrat Monti, and then refused Berlusconi a Presidential pardon when he was convicted.

It is only now that the figures who will dominate the Third Republic for the next few years are becoming clear. They are young and practical.

Whilst the extreme left and former communists are in a state of flux, the Left, across a broad spectrum, is dominated by Matteo Renzi, who has not yet had his fortieth birthday. With each success, most recently the Jobs Act, he becomes more powerful.

On the right, it is the centre which is in flux, with Berlusconi still trying to pull strings, but the spoils likely to go either to Angelino Alfano (44) or Raffaele Fitto (45). On the extreme right things are looking more interesting.

The mantle of Umberto Bossi, 73, head of the Northern League from the early 1990s, has slipped, as he was caught up in a corruption scandal (what else?). It has passed to Matteo Salvini, 41.

Salvini did not look as if he was being groomed for the job. He is bearded and used to hang around in sweatshirts with slogans on them. Even now he seems to slip his minders, and a couple of weeks ago astonished the nation by doing a photoshoot for Oggi magazine (Italy’s Hello!), semi-naked in bed. His body, he admitted cheerfully, is not what it was.

The Northern League has changed and the last few months have seen it hoovering up supporters, sometimes from the most unlikely places.

A while back they quietly dropped their central policy, that the Po Valley, from Turin to Venice, should secede from an Italy which they found corrupt, lazy and bureaucratic. Now they are reinventing themselves as a party of the extreme right, a protest vote but a coherent one. They campaign for more devolution of power to the regions -- all regions -- and less government from the centre.

Salvini sees the Northern League modelled on Marine Le Pen’s Front National, both offering a softer, more approachable Right than those of their predecessors. Salvini opposes immigration but not all of it equally. He believes that Muslim immigration (and Italy gets more than its fair share from North Africa) is destroying the Judaeo-Christian character of Europe.

This is a message which clearly needs to be relayed with tact, but it strikes a chord with many Italians.

Salvini believes his federalist model would work in Europe, but without the centralised power in Brussels (this tallies with debate in the UK as to whether Federalism gives more power to the regions or to the centre). Salvini believes vehemently that Italy should leave the euro.

Salvini’s other policies include support for the USA (envying its federalist character) and, strangely for the European Far Right, for Israel. The Northern League has long seen its struggle for existence in Biblical terms.

At a time of austerity and high unemployment, when people are ready to vote out the old guard, this mish-mash of policies is beginning to resonate. The Northern League has spread southwards into central Italy, to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche, and has allied itself with small, regional right wing parties in the deep south and Sardinia, under the banner ‘Noi con Salvini’ (‘We’re with Salvini’).

Matteo Salvini is the man to watch in Italian politics. His approval rating is in the mid-30s (just behind Renzi) and climbing as his message spreads and there is further disenchantment with Beppe Grillo’s 5-star movement.

The voters have seen him with his shirt off and obviously like what they see.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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